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A pastoral journey from poetry to prose

Living

WORDSMITH Poet and author Ger Reidy at home in his study. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Áine Ryan interviews award-winning poet Ger Reidy about the background influences to his writing

AR You grew up, and still live on a small farm in Aughagower, near Westport. Can you recall those early inspirations for writing? Was your primary- or secondary-school education pivotal to this?
GR Early inspirations came from the observation of the pastoral life, seasons, weather and animals. I was a bit of a dreamer and always felt like an outsider. I was in harmony with rural rhythms but there was always the darkness – the killing of animals for meat, brutality and bullying in schools; and I was always aware of time passing – the transience of everything from the earliest of days.
My brother Tony used to buy LPs at 14s 11d old money, so I was singing John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix in Lankill National School. I’m afraid primary or secondary schools did not inspire me very much. We learned through fear, although O’Faoláin and Seán O’Riordáin made an impact. I really enjoyed Macbeth.

AR You went to Galway to study engineering at UCG. What stands out from the period for you about a changing Irish society of the 1970s?
GR Going to Galway was an adventure in those days. I felt a great energy and excitement in the student life. I studied hard but got out now and again to see Eric Clapton in Leisureland and the early Druid productions. I probably had more in common with the arts crowd than the engineers, they seemed to dismiss each other. I started listening to Pink Floyd and reading poetry books in my final year, I submitted some scribblings to the college magazine, which thank God were not published.
I was a bit immersed in my own world to be aware of society, but I liked the student world view – protesting about Pinochet or violence in the North. Nowadays students want a drink voucher to protest about anything that doesn’t affect themselves.

AR Spending a lifetime as an executive engineer for Mayo County Council doesn’t exactly cohere with the world of creative writing. Can you explain their juxtaposition in your life?
GR Working for Mayo County Council allows me to be embedded in society rather than in a more artificial world of writers, writing about writing, or about not writing. I can also come at it with a naivety and freshness, perhaps. I also like to get paid on a Friday and not worry about the bills. I don’t associate writing with a financial reward, which gives me a certain freedom. I never had the confidence to write full-time or ever thought I had the talent.

AR Your first poetry book, ‘Pictures from a Reservation’, was published in 1997, tell us a little more about how that book came into being? And now, almost 20 years later, which poem still resonates?
GR Much of the work in my first book was written in the ’80s, a very different Ireland to today’s. Lots of emigration without Ryan Air flights and mobile phones, I felt then that we had become an EEC reservation, hence the title, and there’s also a nod to Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ – I was beginning to discover classical music.
My writing has always been coloured by music of all types. Around that time the late great Dermot Healy came to Mayo as writer-in-residence. He kickstarted many of us in Mayo and published us in Force 10 magazine. There are some poems in that collection that I wouldn’t publish now and should have been worked on but there are a few I can still bear to read, like The Gap is Closing about my late father, the last stanza of which is included below. I’d like to think that I’m digging a bit deeper now, down at the black turf of whatever I’m capable of writing.

We couldn’t agree on the colour of a blue sky.
But in recent years I find myself
changing into his gear before a railway bridge,
Driving long straight roads in third
and at the junction wiping fog
Off my side window
in exactly his ominous shape.

(The last stanza of ‘The Gap is Closing’)


AR This year appears to have been a prolific one for you with the publication of your third collection of poetry, ‘Before Rain’, and your first book of short stories, ‘Jobs for a Wet Day’. Explain the move to prose writing and its relationship with your poetic muse.
GR Two books were published this year but I’m not any more prolific. They have been written for years, and I finally put some shape on them. A woman greeted me a few years back saying: “I hear you are a great writer but you’re too lazy to bother getting anything published.” I think that shook me out of complacency.
I have been dabbling with short stories for many years but am only learning the craft; they say they are more like poetry than the novel. I wanted to use stuff that wouldn’t fit in poems –dialogue and character and so on, I also wanted to wallow in descriptive passages a bit too using poetry, a kind of prose-poem I guess.

AR Is the job of writing more challenging when living far from the formal centres of literary discourse? What writers are your muses and, since you still have a day-job, what routine do you have for writing?
GR I think that the job of writing is easier living away from other writers, it’s a solitary pursuit, but I go to The Tyrone Guthrie Centre for a week now and again, which connects me with similar souls. As regards routine, I don’t have a daily one, but I always carry a notebook and capture passing ideas; I tend to gather them up and eventually something with a future emerges, which I edit a few times until it’s allowed out eventually.
I also attend a class most weeks, which pushes me into writing something.
As regards writers I admire, I’ve been influenced by Philip Larkin, Paddy Kavanagh, McNeice, Pablo Neruda, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Tom Murphy, Joyce, Amachai, Milosz and many more. I’m also influenced by Chopin, Bruch, Shostakovich, Fellini, Almodovar, Lynch.

For more information on Ger Reidy, visit www.ger-reidy.com.